Nuclear Ways to Modify Behavior

India’s National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, made a few brief remarks about India’s nuclear weapons program at the Indian Council for World Affairs on the 21st of August. Menon said his speech would attempt to explain why India advocates nuclear disarmament while possessing a nuclear weapons arsenal. In the end, he spent most of his speech rationalizing why India has nuclear weapons.

He gave two reasons. One was that nuclear weapons genuinely contributed to India’s security in “an uncertain and anarchic world.” He said that on “at least three occasions” in the period before 1998, “other powers used the explicit or implicit threat of nuclear weapons to try and change India’s behavior.” Menon then argued that, since there have been no blackmail attempts since India’s nuclear tests in 1998, this is empirical evidence that having nuclear weapons prevents international blackmail.

The other reason was a bit convoluted: India has nuclear weapons “in order to promote real nuclear disarmament.” India promoted universal nuclear disarmament for a quarter of a century. But its efforts were fruitless. When the global non-proliferation regime tightened in the 1990s, “it became clear that possession of nuclear weapons was necessary if our attempts to promote a nuclear weapon free world were to be taken seriously and have some effect.”

There is little doubt about the first bit. India tried to avoid seeking a nuclear deterrent even after the first Chinese nuclear test by asking the United States and the Soviet Union to provide it with a nuclear umbrella. When refused, India reluctantly began seeking its own weapon. Fear of China was at the heart of the decision.

Menon doesn’t specify the three attempts at nuclear blackmail, but they were: the USS Enterprise deployment in 1971, and two separate explicit threats by Pakistan, in 1987 and 1990. After talking to some of the Indian players involved in these incidents, I’m not sure I buy the first case. Carrier deployments were a common US way to send signals, and the 1971 war wasn’t important enough to break a very strong Cold War taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. But regardless, it was likely perceived as an implicit nuclear threat by New Delhi.

However, I don’t think India’s nuclear weapons played much of a role in any of these crises. Or any of the others that followed. The link to the 1998 tests is even more tenuous.

Nuclear weaponization meant less that India became resistant to blackmail but more that such international pressure transmuted into other forms — Pakistan, for instance, switched to attacking India through militant insurgencies. Once both India and Pakistan were accepted to have nuclear weapons capability by about the late 1970s, the two sides adopted nuclear deterrence as their strategic postures. This shift took place well before the 1998 tests. In other words, the point of a nuke is that it should not be used and all players concerned modify their behavior to ensure that usage doesn’t happen.

Nuclear weapons keep conflict below a certain threshold, but do not actually stop conflict altogether. After nuclear weaponization, for instance, India and China continued to experience clashes along their border throughout the mid-1980s. China’s occasional bouts of belligerence and Pakistani actions like the Kargil Incursion were certainly cases of strategic blackmail, designed to force India to change its behavior. They were just designed specifically to remain under the nuclear threshold.

As for the US, I am not sure nuclear blackmail ever occurred in the first place. But US attempts to pressure India on its foreign policy are not in doubt. If they have fallen off today, the reason is that Indo-US strategic relationship is simply different.

While I don’t oppose the 1998 tests, I don’t think they made India any less vulnerable to nuclear blackmail. That vaccination was given by the 1974 nuclear test. The shift to low-level confrontation and unofficial warfare that followed continues to this day.

Copyright © 2012 the Hindustan Times.

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